By Christopher Foster
UW News Lab
Jeremy Lin, the Taiwanese American point guard for the New York Knicks, has captured headlines and hearts all over the country, and rightfully so.
Initially a Harvard graduate who went undrafted, Lin eventually made his way onto the Knicks. Despite being a professional basketball player, his contract was potentially only worth $800,000. He was a small fish in a big pond. Before Linsanity began, Lin’s life included sleeping on his brother’s couch, as he waited for career stability.
When poor play and injuries at the point guard spot pushed him into the starting lineup, Lin took full advantage of the opportunity — and he hasn’t looked back since.
His story is inspiring, the kind portrayed in movies. Players in the NBA say it couldn’t have happened to a better guy.
Yet the public reaction and the way the media have covered Lin have been controversial at times. ESPN’s mobile site recently posted a controversial headline, “A Chink in the Armor,” which resulted in the firing of one of its writers. This week, ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s had to publicly apologize after their new ice cream flavor, Taste the Lin-Sanity, a lychee frozen yogurt with pieces of fortune cookies sprinkled throughout, caused a public uproar because some said the fortune cookie pieces were perpetuating an Asian stereotype.
Cory Lang, a member of Roosevelt High School’s basketball team in 2003 and 2004, has been playing since he was in kindergarten. He says that he appreciates what Lin is doing, but thinks the media are focusing too much on race.
“It puts Asian Americans on the map,” he said. “[But] I don’t like how they blow it up so much. I understand that he’s an Asian person playing basketball, but at the same time, he’s just a regular person.”
Lang says that he thinks the hype Lin has received is partly due to the stereotypes that surround Asian American basketball players. One stereotype Lang referenced — that Asian Americans don’t even play basketball — has been evident in some of the media coverage of Lin.
In his first few games, Lin was often referred to as the first Asian American player in the NBA. While Lin may be the most prominent so far, he is not the first. Players such as Raymond Townsend, a Filipino American, and Rex Walters, of Japanese descent, have also played in the NBA, among others.
As a Chinese American, Lang says that he has faced some of these stereotypes first hand.
“They don’t want to pick you up. They don’t want to pass you the ball,” he said. “Walking into the gym, you could just tell by the way they’re talking to each other, the way they’re acting. It’s just like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to kill these guys.’ ”
Lang now plays with a group of his friends in the Puget Sound Basketball League (PSBL). With more than 270 adult teams, the PSBL is one of Washington’s largest recreational basketball leagues. Aside from one player, Lang’s team is made up entirely of Asian Americans.
Lang says that his current team has been together since high school. For Lang and the other members, Asian American basketball players are nothing new. The team has found success at various levels of basketball. The PSBL is just the next step.
Hau Nguyen, one of Lang’s teammates, is also used to the stereotypes that Asian American players face. As a Vietnamese American, Nguyen says some of it has to do with his size.
“We get a lot of skepticism because of how small we are,” he said. “They don’t take us seriously until a couple of points are scored.”
While many see Asian Americans in basketball as somewhat of a novelty, locally, Asian Americans have been playing for years.
The Seattle Chinese Athletic Association was created in 1968, more than 40 years ago, to meet the desire of local Chinese Americans who wanted to create a sports league. Basketball was incorporated into the organization in 1974.
Tyler Larson, who played on the Ingraham High School basketball team from 2005 to 2008, said that Lang and his teammates are some of the most talented players he’s played with. That’s a big compliment from Larson, who’s been on several Association of American University (AAU) basketball teams and has gone to tournaments all over the West Coast.
Nguyen says that even though some of the coverage Lin has received is controversial, he thinks it’s for the best. Lang, on the other hand, thinks that some aspects reinforce stereotypes.
“The way they look at him is very stereotypical,” he said. “[There’s] the fact that he never got a chance, yet you hear scouts and coaches say they always thought he was good. But what’s the difference between him and other players?”
Lang and Nguyen both say that while the stereotypes do exist, it feels good to prove them wrong on the court. So when it comes to Asian American stereotypes and basketball — in the cases of Lin, Nguyen, and Lang — the ball never lies. (end)
Chris Foster is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.